Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

So, at last – Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl. A near-future story set in a world where we have run out of oil all the while genetic science has its heyday being used by the corporate world as a way to more or less covertly own and commandeer all of the world and its peoples.

Welcome to Thailand. A nation set on isolationism as a way to avoid ceding its national sovereignty to corporate America. The greenhouse effect has brought a rise in the water table so half of Bangkok is now more or less sunken while the other half is kept dry by way of dikes and pumps. A fight is on with the isolationists on one side and the ones favouring trade with the world outside on the other; when we enter the story we don’t really know who to side with but it is clear that confrontation is impossible to avoid.

As if this wasn’t complex enough Bacigalupi adds a vat-grown human being, debating if this really is a human or not, and we follow her in her ongoing and daily humiliation. Because in isolationist Thailand anything not from within is impure. And anything genetically enhanced is a symbol for the devil enemy from abroad, something that deserves abuse. And abuse she takes, until one day she lashes back…

As the Chinese are said to curse – may you live in interesting times. The people in this book certainly do so.

The story is well written and well imagined but roaming a territory defined by William Gibson, Ian McDonald and, to me, containing much of Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  It very much feels like a first novel, trying to stake out a part of that land for his own. Yet, and perhaps because of his territorial neighbours, whom I love so much, I recommend this book highly.

Fast, fun, imaginative; not without originality; good penmanship, a fluid mind. And with one foot clearly set in the now. Because the world he describes is a result of how we presently treat our planet and our fellow humans. As extrapolations go, not very far-fetched. Which is scary.

Read it.

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Review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

I don’t know what I expected from this. A book about war, obviously, a future war, and one that had gone one for a while. What I knew was I was in the mood for some ‘classic’ style science fiction, and Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, promised to be just that.

We follow the adventures of senior citizen John Perry as he decides to gamble his life on the promise of… extended life – he quits Earth and join the Colonial Defence Forces for a term of no less than two years, with a high probability of serving the full ten the contract stipulates. He have no idea what is waiting for him, yet he feels he is not ready to die. And the CDF only recruits 75 year old people, people who wouldn’t be expected to withstand the rigours of war. So it’s a given the CDF have a way to make you young again, no?

I haven’t read any Heinlein in ages, yet he was the first reference that came to my mind while reading Old Man’s War; a kind of flashback to my teens when I devoured anything with Heinlein as an author.

I don’t research books too closely before reading them so I had no idea Scalzi himself recognises this debt, but it makes sense.

In the first half of the book Scalzi manages this heritage very well, but the second half don’t live up to expectations – at least not mine. This is mainly due to a couple of all too unbelievable coincidences and going-ons. The writing is still accomplished, and by that point if you have invested in the main character you want to know what will happen next, but the story in itself just didn’t hold up.

The last chapter felt contrived, and should rightly had been labelled ‘epilogue’. I guess the publisher demanded him to axe it, to make the rest into another novel.

Despite above reading this book was an enjoyable experience.

Regenesis. Or – should it be “RE: Genesis”?

Fast forward a couple of hundred years or four. Civilization in space consists of hundreds of thousands of space born humans, scattered about at space stations and space ships – stationers and spacers. But these stationers and spacers are only subsets in a larger cultural rift – that between a basic market economy, however tightly controlled by the big movers, in the form of the Merchanter Alliance and that of the radically positivist culture of Union, formed by dissident and renegade scientists.

In most of the books set in the Alliance-Union Universe Union are depicted as elitist and conformistic. We learn that they breed genetically and psychologically engineered humans, born in birthlabs. We learn that they program people so that some become free humans and some of them become what we would call slaves, or at least servants.
And we learn that they are all the same, and evil.
Much like the how the western world viewed the Soviet union, in fact.

For a long time the book Cyteen was the only one to give us a glimpse behind the scenes in Union, and while most of us felt revulsion at the basic premise of this society we were none the less shown that there lived people of all sorts, and with a wide range of ideas and opinions. We also gets to understand that this lesser breed of humans – azi, in the language of this universe – is, YES, basically humans, too.
The back story is one of power play, politics, and a murder, but the premise is this rational and positivist culture driven and ruled by scientists and the true theme is the exploration of what a rational mind can do, under the ‘right’ circumstances.

Since the end of December 2008/beginning of January 2009 this story is continued in Regenesis. It takes up the threads left dangling back in the late 80’s, when the first story was published, and continues to reveal new takes on the old issues while at the same time elaborating on the ideas of social and psychological engineering.

I think one of Cherryh’s greater strengths as an author (obviously not counting her abilities at words and pacing) is her ability to discuss difficult issues while at the same time creating believable characters – to show how big scale politics affects the reality of the individual, through the eyes of the individual. This way we get to see that Enemy is just a label and that yes, They is just like Us – just trying to survive, making the best of their situation with what means they have.

This should not be controversial. But in this time it might well be a very lonely voice in a choir screaming hate, at the top of their lungs.